The issue of alienation described in the novel The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan constitutes the mother-daughter-relation of Jing-mei and her mother Suyuan. For what reasons do their reciprocal actions of communication often run into difficulties? And to what extent can the two of them be blamed for the troubles in their relationship?
As the difficulties, which constantly damage the mother-daughter-relationship of Jing-mei and Suyuan, derive from external circumstances caused by their disparities in ideals and beliefs, the discrepancy between the two of them is determinate and immutable, not only due to generational divide, but rather for counter-cultural reasons.
This paper will probe the causes of the troubled relation between Suyuan and Jing-mei including the matters of cultural background, language use and system of values, in which Suyuan and Jing-mei differ from each other. I aspire after covering the circumstances in which Suyuan’s and Jing-mei’s contact happens to be unsuccessful. By reflecting about the mother’s and daughter’s role in this dissent, I will contemplate whether one can be hold fully accountable for the troubles, whether it is a mutual fault or the fault of none.
Jing-mei is a first generation Chinese-American and the daughter of Suyuan Woo, a native born Chinese who went to the United States to find a better life. Their familial tie is characterized by disagreements caused by entirely different attitudes, discrepancies concerning cultural background and personal experiences as well as individual-related aspirations. In accord with Heung, “the constantly growing cleavage of ethnic and national identity drives the daughter to make persistent efforts to Americanize herself in order to lessen her mother's commanding influence.” (8) But nevertheless, it is fair to say that the genuine love of Suyuan for her daughter is beyond question. This is confirmed when Ying-ying St. Clair reasons with Jing-mei that her mother “loved [her] very much, more than her own life” (Tan 39). But despite this, there is a great lack of communication which leads to many moments of misunderstanding between mother and daughter.
In the case of Jing-mei and Suyuan, the problem is deep-seated and by far exceeds the everyday arguments of ordinary people. In fact, it rather resembles “the form of psychological warfare between the two” (Heung 9). The contentious points in their relationship issue from several parameters, which will be elaborated hereinafter.
On the one hand, these misapprehensions are due to linguistic barriers. Although Suyuan can speak comprehensible English, she does not seem to have sufficient command of the language and prefers to express herself in her mother tongue, which is Chinese. As verbal interaction represents a significant part of a smooth relation between mother and daughter, it becomes apparent that the bilingual manner of communication is a crucial center of conflict.
These kinds of explanations made me feel my mother and I spoke two different languages, which we did. I talked to her in English, she answered back in Chinese. (Tan 33)
But more than linguistic barriers, the “mother’s intuitive perceptions” (Snodgrass 51) have a share in misunderstanding each other. Even if they entirely get the issue, both mother and daughter conceive it in a completely different way by adapting the subject of conversation to their personal ideas of how it should be.
My mother and I never really understood one another. We translated each other’s meanings and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more. (Tan 37) Their translations, or interpretations to be more precise, have not much in common. They are based on the aspirations for the future which Suyuan Woo imagines in a whole different way from Jing-mei. When her daughter was a child, Suyuan intended Jing- mei to be a prodigy. But at a public piano concert Jing-mei turned out not to be the desired luminary at playing the piano. Corresponding to that, Snodgrass illuminates that “the public humiliation illustrates the cost to parents of enforcing traditional Chinese strictures on children who have not direct tie with the motherland.” (123)
Besides the expectations on her daughter which meet with disappointment, Suyuan Woo is confronted with absence of obedience. As the beliefs of mother and daughter about obedience and autonomy clash due to different cultural backgrounds, a full-throated argument happens. In this strife Suyuan demands ultimate obedience from Jing-mei. Due to her credo of Confucianism, she insists on honor and submission to parents.
‘You want me to be someone that I’m not!’ I sobbed. ‘I’ll never be the kind of daughter you want me to be!’
‘Only two kinds of daughters,’ she shouted in Chinese. ‘Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!’ (Tan 142)
By saying this, Suyuan mentions a manner of thinking which is stereotypical of Americans, namely to have a mind of one’s own and to campaign for the personal identity. According to Heung, “the Chinese way consists of not expressing one's desires, not speaking up, and not making choices. The American way consists of exercising choices and speaking up for oneself.” (7)
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